Category Archives: D. A. Carson

October 15 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 18; 1 Thessalonians 1; Ezekiel 48; Psalm 104

 

“o lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” So we read in the opening verse of Psalm 104. In this psalm the evidence of the Lord’s greatness is bound up with the created order. Some reflections:

(1) In the opening verses (104:1–4) the string of metaphorical touches is revealing. God wraps himself in light; he stretches out the heavens like a tent; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes winds his messengers. Pantheism merges god with the universe; robust Christian theism not only makes God separate from the universe as Creator is to creation, but in these metaphors suggests that God delights in what he has made. The mood is not only exalted, but almost playful. If pantheism is ruled out, equally there is no scope for deism. The created order is alive with God’s presence as he delights in what his hands have made.

(2) In this psalm there is a strong emphasis on the way all of life depends on the sustaining providence of the Almighty. God makes springs pour water down ravines, and in consequence the beasts of the field drink, trees grow, birds of the air nest in the branches (104:10–12). God is the One who makes grass grow for the cattle, and makes other plants for human consumption (104:14). The lions roar and seek their food from God (104:21). As for the sea, with its teeming millions of life forms, “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time” (104:27). The sheer abundance and diversity of life forms testifies to God’s imagination, power, wisdom, and incalculable wealth. Life itself is sustained by God’s sanction. If he takes away their breath, they die (104:29–30). The assumption is not the animism of the pagan world. There is an orderliness to the whole (note the rhythm of light and dark, 104:19–24) that makes science possible. But God never withdraws from active, providential rule over every single element of the universe’s operation, with the result that it is not only appropriate but essential to confess that all of life is daily dependent on God for its quotidian supply of food.

(3) All the created order elicits delighted and faithful praise from the unnamed psalmist (104:33). There is just a hint that we ought to be thinking about God in these terms; we want our meditation to be pleasing to him (104:34). And before the closing lines of praise, there is a quiet reminder that despite the glory and beauty of the created order, sin has made this more of a war zone than a museum or a choir (104:35).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 15 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 18; 1 Thessalonians 1; Ezekiel 48; Psalm 104

 

it is tempting to comment further on the Pauline triad found in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 (see meditation on October 11), but the confrontation on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) beckons.

The most shocking thing about that confrontation is that it was needed. These are the covenant people of God. It is not as if God has never disclosed himself to them. The corporate mind of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom has all but abandoned its heritage. When Elijah challenges the people with the words, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (18:21), the people say nothing.

Yet before we indulge in too many self-righteous musings, we need to reflect on how often the church has moved away from her moorings. The Great Awakening was a powerful movement of the Spirit of God, yet a century later many of the churches that had been filled with fresh converts, robust theology, and godly living had degenerated into Unitarianism. Who would have guessed that the land of Luther and the Reformation would have given us Hitler and the Holocaust? Why is it that twentieth-century evangelicalism, as it mushroomed between, say, 1930 and 1960, soon bred varieties of self-designated evangelicals whom no evangelical leader of the earlier period would have recognized as such? The sad reality is that human memory is short, selective, and self-serving. Moreover, each new generation begins with a slightly different baseline. Since all its members need conversion, the church is never more than a generation or two from extinction. If we forget this simple point, it becomes all too easy to rest on our laurels when we are comfortable, and somehow lose sight of our mission, not to say of our Maker and Redeemer.

The setup on Mount Carmel was spectacular: one prophet against 850, Yahweh against Baal—and Baal was often thought of as the god of fire. It is as if Elijah has set up the contest on Baal’s turf. His mocking words whip up the false prophets into an orgy of self-flagellation (18:28). By God’s instruction (18:36), Elijah increases the odds by soaking the sacrifice he is preparing. Then, in the evening, his own brief prayer brings down explosive fire from heaven, and the people cry, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (18:39). And in response to Elijah’s intercessory prayer, the rain comes again to the parched land.

Something deep in the hearts of many Christians cries, “Do it again!”—not, of course, exactly the same thing, but a focused confrontation that elicits decisive and massive confession of the living God.

But did even this change Israel? Why or why not?[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 14 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 17; Colossians 4; Ezekiel 47; Psalm 103

 

one of the loveliest of the psalms is Psalm 103. I reflected on it in volume 1 (meditation for June 11). Here I want to return to several of its themes:

(1) “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (103:8). That truth is often expressed in the Old Testament. For example, when the Lord passes before Moses while the latter is hiding in a cleft in the rock, he intones, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Ex. 34:6). Yet that is not the impression that many readers of the Old Testament have of God. Somehow they think he runs on a short fuse, never very far off from an outburst that can wipe out a nation or two. Why do they have that impression?

Probably in part because they do not read the Old Testament very closely. Or perhaps they read the Old Testament impressionistically: there are all those passages in the prophets where the Lord is threatening judgment, and they can leave a sour taste and a smell of sulfur. But should we not see the Lord’s mercy in them? He delays judgment, which may be postponed for years or even decades. On the first signs of genuine repentance, he turns from wrath, for the Lord is “slow to anger, abounding in love.” Strict justice would be immediate—an easy thing for Omniscience! The truth is that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (103:10).

(2) “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (103:13–14). It is almost as if this God is looking for reasons to be as forbearing as possible. But it is also true that a human father is likely to be far more compassionate and forbearing with a son or daughter who “fears” him and basically respects him. Then each confusion or failure or mistake is likely to be treated with more forbearance than the conduct of the son or daughter who is profoundly anarchic. In any case, this heavenly Father knows us better than we know ourselves. Who better than he can tell us what we are made of?

(3) In our guilt before a holy God, what we need most is to be forgiven all our sins (103:3), to have them removed far from us: “as far as the east is from the west [a distance without limit, unlike north to south], so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (103:12). With that assurance, all other blessings of any worth will one day be ours; without the forgiveness of sins, any other blessing we have received is worse than worthless: it may be deceptive.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 14 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

October 14

1 Kings 17; Colossians 4; Ezekiel 47; Psalm 103

 

here and there in the New Testament we are suddenly given brief glimpses of arrays of Christian people. Romans 16 provides such a snapshot, and Colossians 4:7–18 provides us with another. The men and women briefly introduced lived entire, complex, interlocked lives, of which we know almost nothing. But they are our brothers and sisters in Christ; they faced temptations, overcame challenges, discharged very different tasks, and played out their roles in diverse strata of society. The brief glimpses afforded here fire our imaginations; our fuller curiosity will be satisfied only in heaven.

A few comments may hint at some of the things that may be learned from the information Paul’s letter provides.

(1) Paul kept a team of people working with him. One of their roles was to travel back and forth between wherever Paul was and the churches for which he felt himself responsible. Combining Paul’s letters with Acts, it is often possible to plot some of their constant travels. Here, Paul sends Tychicus to the Colossians with explicit pastoral purposes (4:7–8).

(2) The “Mark” of 4:10 is almost certainly John Mark, and the author of the second Gospel. Here he is identified as a relative of Barnabas. This may account, in part, for the dispute between Barnabas and Paul as to whether Mark should be given a second chance after he withdrew from the first missionary expedition (Acts 13:5, 13; 15:37–40). Certainly by the end of Paul’s ministry, Mark had been restored in the apostle’s eyes (2 Tim. 4:11).

(3) Paul’s co-workers often included both Jews and Gentiles (4:11). It does not take much imagination to recognize the challenges and stresses, as well as the blessings and richness, that this arrangement entailed.

(4) Epaphras emerges as a formidable model. He is “always wrestling in prayer” for the Colossian believers. What he prays, above all, is that they “may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12). How the church of Christ needs prayer warriors with similar focus today!

(5) The “Luke” mentioned in 4:14 is almost certainly the author of Luke and Acts, and a Gentile (since he is in the Gentile part of this list, 4:11ff.). This makes him the only Gentile writer of a New Testament document. Demas is mentioned in the same breath, but he is probably the same one who ultimately deserts the mission and the Gospel (2 Tim. 4:10). Good beginnings do not guarantee good endings.

(6) Churches in the first century did not have their own buildings. Believers regularly met in the homes of their wealthier members. Nympha of Laodicea is one of the wealthy women of a wealthy city, and the church there met in her home (4:15).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 13 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 16; Colossians 3; Ezekiel 46; Psalm 102

 

psalm 102 is sometimes wrongly labeled a penitential psalm. It sounds far more like the cry of a person whose sufferings are unexplained (like those of Job). At the beginning the sorrows are private and personal; later they are eclipsed by a growing concern for Zion. Progress toward Zion’s glory seems slow. This fosters a contrast between the psalmist’s restricted and fleeting “days” (102:3) and the Almighty’s eternal “years” (102:27).

But here I shall focus attention on the final verses of the psalm. Regular Bible readers will recognize that verses 25–27 are quoted in Hebrews 1:10–12, with God addressing the Messiah, in effect giving him divine status. One may well ask how the writer of Hebrews construed the Old Testament text in this way.

The answer turns in part on the fact that the original Hebrew of the Old Testament was composed with what today we call consonants. Vowels were not included. They were added much later—indeed, the most common vowel system was added to the Hebrew text about one thousand years into the Christian era. Usually this presents no problems. Once in a while, however, it is possible to read the Old Testament consonantal text with a slightly different vowel choice, yielding a different meaning. In this instance there is no question at all about the consonants. But the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, shows how those translators understood the Hebrew—and in this passage they understood it exactly as the Epistle to the Hebrews takes it. The traditional vowel placement, preserved in our English versions, understands verses 23–24 much as in the NIV. The thought is parallel to verses 11–12. But the LXX and Hebrews read it as follows: “He answered him in the way of his strength, ‘Declare to me the fewness of my days. Do not bring me up [i.e., summon me to action] in the middle of my days; your years are for generations on end. In the beginning you, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth.…’ ” The implication of this rendering is that God is addressing the psalmist, whom God addresses as Lord and Creator. That is how Hebrews takes it. On this view, the entire psalm is messianic, an oracular psalm like Psalm 110 (see vol. 1, meditation for June 17). Try rereading Psalm 102 that way; it makes sense. Compare the use of Psalm 45 in Hebrews 1 (see meditation for September 4): the Davidic king is addressed as God, and this too is cited in Hebrews 1. But even if the traditional Hebrew vowel assignments are correct, the inferences drawn by Hebrews 1 are not far away, though they must be drawn on quite different grounds.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 13 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 16; Colossians 3; Ezekiel 46; Psalm 102

 

first and 2 kings narrate the declining fortunes of both the northern and southern kingdoms. Occasionally there is a reforming king in one realm or the other. But on the whole the direction is downward. Some orientation (1 Kings 16):

(1) Although 1 and 2 Kings treat both the northern and the southern kingdoms, the emphasis is on the former. By contrast, 1 and 2 Chronicles, which cover roughly the same material, tilt strongly in favor of the kingdom of Judah.

(2) In the south, the Davidic dynasty continues. During its history, there are, humanly speaking, some very close calls. Nevertheless God preserves the line; his entire redemptive purposes are bound up with continuity of that Davidic line. The stance throughout is well expressed in 1 Kings 15:4. Abijah king of Judah, who reigned only three years, was doubtless an evil king. “Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem by raising up a son to succeed him and by making Jerusalem strong.” In the north, however, no dynasty survives very long. The dynasty of Jeroboam lasted two generations and was then butchered (15:25–30), replaced by Baasha (15:33–34). His dynasty likewise produced two kings, and then the males in his family were wiped out by Zimri (16:8–13), whose reign lasted all of seven days (16:15–19). And so it goes. If the Davidic line continues in the south, it is all of grace.

(3) These successions in the north are brutal and bloody. For instance, after Zimri the citizens of Israel face a brief civil war, divided as they are between Omri and Tibni. The followers of the former win. The text wryly comments, “So Tibni died and Omri became king” (16:22). In short, there is perennial lust for power, few systems for orderly hand over of government, no hearty submission to the living God.

(4) From God’s perspective, however, the severity of the sin is measured first and foremost not in terms of the bloody violence, but in terms of the idolatry (for example, 16:30–33). Omri was a strong ruler who strengthened the nation enormously, but little of that is recorded: from God’s perspective he “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him” (16:25). Building programs and a rising GDP do not make up for idolatry.

(5) Details in these accounts often tie the narrative to events much earlier and later. Thus the rebuilding of Jericho (16:34) calls to mind the curse on the city when it was destroyed centuries earlier (Josh. 6:26). The founding of the city of Samaria (16:24) anticipates countless narratives of what takes place in that city—including Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4; see March 14 meditation).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 12 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 15; Colossians 2; Ezekiel 45; Psalms 99–101

 

some of the psalms are grouped into collections. Psalms 93–100 celebrate the kingship and coming of the Lord. Thematically, however, they range from the exuberant exhilaration of Psalm 98 (yesterday’s meditation) to a more subdued but profoundly submissive awe. After the unrestrained joy of Psalm 98, there follows in Psalm 99 a profound reverence. We have moved from a festival of praise to a cathedral.

The psalm divides into two parts. The theme of the first is established by the repeated line, “he is holy” (99:3, 5). This does not mean something as narrow as saying that God is good or moral (though it does not exclude such notions). The emphasis is on the sheer “Godness” of God—what makes him different from human beings, what makes him uniquely God. The two instances of the clause “he is holy” are meant to be statements summarizing in each case the preceding lines. (a) The Lord reigns; he is exalted above the mighty cherubim (99:1). Though he manifests himself in Zion, he is no tribal deity: “he is exalted over all the nations” (99:2). “Let them praise your great and awesome name” (99:3)—and then the summarizing refrain, “he is holy.” (b) If he reigns over all, he is, supremely, the King (99:4). He is not only mighty, he loves justice and fairness. This has been eminently displayed in his own covenant community: “in Jacob you have done what is just and right” (99:4). There is only one appropriate response before such a God: “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool” (99:5)—and again the summarizing refrain, “he is holy.”

The second part of the psalm contemplates the truth that, however exalted and holy he is, God chose to disclose himself to human beings. We may be tempted to think of Moses and Aaron and Samuel as almost superhuman. But the psalmist carefully places them among the priests and among those who called on his name: they were not fundamentally different from others. Moreover, they were frail and flawed like the rest of us. According to verse 8, God was to them (not “to Israel”: the NIV footnote is correct) “a forgiving God,” even though he “punished their misdeeds” (here follow the NIV text, not the footnote).

Thus the theme of God’s holiness does not end in mere transcendence, but in an unimaginably great God graciously disclosing himself to human beings—even when they rebel against him. We stand in their company. If his holiness is disclosed both in mercy and in wrath, then we are neither to despair of it nor to presume upon it. “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (99:9).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 12 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 15; Colossians 2; Ezekiel 45; Psalms 99–101

 

the setting was a Bible study led by a lady in the church where I was serving as pastor. A woman from one of the more popular cults had infiltrated this group, and the lady from our church soon discovered she was a little out of her depth. I was invited along, and soon found myself in a public confrontation with the intruder’s cult “pastor” (though he did not call himself that). One of the things he wanted to deny in strong terms was the deity of Jesus Christ. As we started looking together at biblical references which, on the face of it, say something about the deity of Christ, eventually we came to Colossians 2:9. He wanted to render the verse, rather loosely, something like “in Christ all the attributes of the Deity live in bodily form.”

I asked him which of the attributes of God Jesus does not have. He immediately saw the problem. If he said, “eternality” (which is what he believed), he would be trapped, for his own rendering would contradict him. If he said, “none” (in defiance of his own beliefs), then how can Jesus and God be as sharply distinguished as he proposed?

In any case, Colossians 2:9 is even stronger than his translation allowed: “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Observe:

(1) In this context, the Colossians are exhorted to continue to live in Christ, just as they “received Christ Jesus as Lord” (2:6)—which as usual bears an overtone of Jesus’ divine identity, since “Lord” was commonly the way one addressed God in the Greek versions of the Old Testament.

(2) Both then and now, there are people who try to ensnare you through a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition” (2:8). In virtually every case, the aim of such deceptive philosophies is to reduce or relativize Christ, to redirect attention and allegiance away from him. Not only these verses but much of the letter to the Colossians show that, whoever these heretics are, their attack is against Christ. Paul will not budge: “all the fullness of the Deity” lives in him in bodily form—and you are complete in him, in him you enjoy all the fullness you can possibly know (2:10). To turn from him for extras is disastrous, for he alone is “the head over every power and authority” (2:10).

(3) Apparently at least one branch of the Colossian heretics was trying to get the believers to add to Christ a bevy of Jewish rituals. Paul does not budge: he understands that the rites and rituals mandated by the Old Testament constitute “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (2:17).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 11 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 14; Colossians 1; Ezekiel 44; Psalms 97–98

 

in the anglican book of common prayer, Psalm 98 is known as the Cantate Domino (“Sing to the Lord”) and is placed between the evening Old Testament reading and its New Testament counterpart. It overflows with exhilarating worship and joy.

The psalm has three stanzas. The first (98:1–3) celebrates the “salvation” of God (found in each verse). The word is perhaps more comprehensive than the way it is used today. It includes victory over enemies: this “salvation” or victory was effected by the Lord’s “right hand and his holy arm” (98:1). But it also includes what we mean by salvation: God reconciles people to himself and transforms them by his grace. While God “has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel” (98:3), the glorious truth is that he “has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations” (98:2); “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (98:3). Small wonder, then, we must sing to the Lord “a new song” (98:1). The expression signals not so much a new composition, written for the occasion perhaps, as a fresh response to new mercies showered upon us.

The second stanza (98:4–6) responds to the first. The first celebrates God’s coming in power and salvation, the second responds to every act of God in exhilarated worship. Indeed, because the full salvation briefly described awaits the consummation, all our acts of worship are an anticipation of the end. We “shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (98:6) as a prelude and an announcement of the consummation of his reign. The instruments listed here were regularly used as part of temple worship (cf. 1 Chron. 16:5–6) or on joyous occasions such as the accession of a new king (e.g., 1 Kings 1:39).

If the praise of the second stanza is carefully put together in orchestrated singing, the praise of the third stanza (98:7–9) is inarticulate. But it is no less powerful for being artless. Even now the whole universe declares the glory of God. But if various Old Testament passages anticipate a vast renewing of the created order (Ps. 96:11–13; Isa. 2; 11; 55:11–12), Paul not only anticipates the same but recognizes that the fulfillment depends on the transformation of human beings at the end: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19–21).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 11 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 14; Colossians 1; Ezekiel 44; Psalms 97–98

 

faith, hope, and love are together sometimes referred to as the Pauline triad. They occur in Paul’s letters in various combinations. Sometimes only two of the three show up; sometimes all three.

Probably the best known verse with the Pauline triad is 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Here no relationship is expressed among the three. Paul tells us that these three virtues—faith, hope, and love (and this last one he calls “the most excellent way” (12:31b; see the September 8 meditation) rather than a “gift”)—all “remain”: what he means, I think, is that these all remain into eternity, and therefore should be nurtured and pursued even now. But the greatest of these three, Paul insists, is love. Why this is so, Paul does not tell us. Based on what the New Testament says elsewhere, we might reasonably hold that the reason why love is the greatest is that it is an attribute of God. God does not exercise faith; he does not “hope” in the sense of looking forward to the fulfillment of something that some other brings about. But he does love: indeed, 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love; no text says he is faith or hope. So the greatest of the three is love.

Here in Colossians 1:3–6, however, the relationship among the three elements of the Pauline triad is quite different. Paul thanks God when he prays for the Colossians, he says, “because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you” (1:4–6). This NIV rendering is slightly paraphrastic, but it catches the sense very well. Note:

(1) Paul did not plant the Colossian church. But now that he has come to hear of these believers, he prays for them constantly, with thanksgiving.

(2) What Paul has heard of these Colossian believers is their faith and love, both demonstrable virtues. If you have faith in Jesus, and if you love the saints, neither virtue can be hidden. These virtues were so evident among the Colossians that reports of their faith and love circulated to Paul. Do reports of the faith and love of our churches circulate widely?

(3) Paul says this faith and love “spring from the hope” that is stored up for them (1:5). Living with eternity in view vitalizes faith and calls forth love.

(4) This hope that has grounded their faith and love has itself been grounded in the Gospel, the word of truth that was preached to them (1:5–6).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 10 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 13; Philippians 4; Ezekiel 43; Psalms 95–96

 

almost twenty years have elapsed since the visionary experience in which Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord abandoning the temple (Ezek. 10:18–22; 11:22–24). Here in Ezekiel 43:1–12 he witnesses the Lord’s return.

Numerous phrases and clauses remind us that the glory Ezekiel now sees is to be identified with the glory he first saw in the mobile throne vision in Ezekiel 1–3, and with the glory that abandoned the temple and the city in the vision of chapters 8–11. Ezekiel makes the point explicit: “The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown” (43:3).

Within the symbol-structure of the vision, this means that God is manifesting himself among his people once more. They are to respond by being ashamed of their sins (43:10–11) and by conforming perfectly to whatever he prescribes (43:11).

The culmination of this vision within the book of Ezekiel is found in the last verse of the book: “And the name of the city from that time on will be: the Lord is there” (48:35). That is wonderful. Wherever the Lord is, is holy. “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Pet. 1:13–16). John saw a vision of “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). The voice cried, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).

We must always remember that: The Gospel is not admired in Scripture primarily because of the social transformation it effects, but because it reconciles men and women to a holy God. Its purpose is not that we might feel fulfilled, but that we might be reconciled to the living and holy God. The consummation is delightful to the transformed people of God, not simply because the environment of the new heaven and the new earth is pleasing, but because we forever live and work and worship in the unshielded radiance of the presence of our holy Maker and Redeemer. That prospect must shape how the church lives and serves, and determine the pulse of its ministry. The only alternative is high-sounding but self-serving idolatry.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 9 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 12; Philippians 3; Ezekiel 42; Psalm 94

 

the description of the temple (Ezek. 41) is followed by a description of rooms reserved for priests (Ezek. 42). But I shall press yesterday’s discussion a little farther and briefly discuss two more of the ways these chapters have been interpreted.

(3) Many older commentators argued that chapters 40–48 are straightforward symbols of what is fulfilled in the Christian church. There is some truth to this view. It is given impetus when one observes, for instance, that John’s vision of the holy city in Revelation is drawn in substantial part from the language of Ezekiel. But the same passages in Revelation spell the weakness of this interpretation. When John uses the language of Ezekiel (or of Daniel or some other Old Testament writer), he regularly transmutes it, or picks up its words and phrases without putting it to exactly the same use. Although John’s description of the holy city leans heavily on Ezekiel, John’s city has no temple, for the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev. 21:1–22:5). In that sense, Revelation is not a direct and immediate fulfillment of a string of symbols.

(4) It is better, but messier, to take these chapters as belonging to the borderlands of apocalyptic literature and typology. The symbolism includes numerical features; its future-orientation springs not from mere verbal prediction or simplistic symbolism, but from structures of patterns and events that point forward. We have already glimpsed this sort of thing in chapters 38–39, depicting the final battle, when God sovereignly moves to destroy all his foes. Read this way, chapters 40–48 envisage the messianic future, but in the symbolic categories of Ezekiel’s present. The temple is a kind of enactment or incarnation of the presence and blessing of God in the age for which pious Israelites yearned. On this view, the theological themes and pastoral comforts of these chapters include: (a) God’s presence remains continuously as the fount of all blessing. (b) God’s people are perfectly restored, the perfection of his plan and of their experience bound up with the perfection of symmetry in the building. (c) Because God is perfectly present, fullness of life and fruitfulness flow from God’s presence to all the barren places of the earth. This is a transformed universe. (d) The worship of God is central, and undertaken exactly as God demands. (e) Justice and righteousness are the order of the day, seen in the perfect allotment of land and responsibilities.

If this is largely right, the ultimate hope lies at the very end of history—but that end has already invaded history itself, in these last days. The consummation is not yet, but the kingdom has dawned.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 9 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 12; Philippians 3; Ezekiel 42; Psalm 94

 

the division of the unified kingdom into two unequal parts—the kingdom of Israel with its ten tribes in the north and the kingdom of Judah with two tribes in the south (1 Kings 12)—once again presents us with a remarkable dynamic between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

God had already predicted, through Ahijah the prophet, that Jeroboam would take away the ten northern tribes from Solomon’s successor (11:26–40). Jeroboam was explicitly told that if he then remained faithful to the Lord, the Lord would establish a dynasty for him. Yet the first thing that Jeroboam does, once he secures the northern tribes, is erect golden calves at Bethel and Dan, and consecrate non-Levitical priests, because he does not want his people making the trek to the temple in Jerusalem (12:25–33). Doesn’t he realize that if God has the power to give him the ten tribes, and the concern to warn him about disloyalty, he certainly has the power to preserve the integrity of the northern kingdom even if the people go up to Jerusalem for the high festivals? But Jeroboam makes his political judgments, refuses to obey God, and shows himself ungrateful for what has come his way. His only enduring legacy is that throughout the rest of the Old Testament he is designated as “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin” (e.g., 2 Kings 14:24).

More inexplicable yet is Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Solomon may have been a skilled administrator of justice, but by the end of his life his enormously expensive projects were wearing down his people. Their representatives assure Rehoboam that they will be loyal to him if only he will lighten their load a little. The elders assure Rehoboam that their request is reasonable: he should adopt the stance of being “a servant to these people and serve them,” for then he will discover that “they will always be your servants” (12:7). With massive insensitivity and piercing stupidity, Rehoboam adopts instead the wretched advice of “young men” full of themselves and their opinions, with no understanding of people generally and of this nation in particular (12:8). So Rehoboam responds harshly, not only rejecting the people’s request but promising more demands and increased brutality. And suddenly the rebellion is underway.

Yet the writer comments, “So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfill the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite” (12:15). God’s sovereignty (see, for example, the meditation for June 3) does not excuse or mitigate Rehoboam’s stupidity and Jeroboam’s rebellion; their stupidity and sin do not mean that God has lost control. Such mysteries of providence make it difficult to “read” history; they also prove immensely comforting and make it possible for us to rest in Romans 8:28.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 8 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 11; Philippians 2; Ezekiel 41; Psalms 92–93

 

although ezekiel 41 (or, more precisely, 40:48–41:26) is devoted to the description of the temple within the great vision of chapters 40–48, I shall focus attention here on how this chapter, indeed all nine of these chapters, should be interpreted. I shall survey two of the more important options here, and two more tomorrow.

(1) Some hold that this is Ezekiel’s vision of what should in fact be built once the exile has ended and some of the people return to the land. In that case chapter 41 provides specifications for the building. The strength of this view is that it follows up on the many passages in this book telling that the exile will end. Nevertheless one has to say that, read as building specs, this chapter is pretty thin (much less detailed, for instance, than the specifications either for the tabernacle or for the Solomonic temple). Moreover, chapter 41 must be read within the framework of chapters 40–48, and as we shall see, there are numerous features that cannot be taken literally. Certainly there is little evidence that those who built the second temple thought they were bound to follow Ezekiel’s guidelines.

(2) The mid-twentieth-century form of dispensationalism argued for a similar literalism, but held that the construction of the temple and the return of blood sacrifices and Levitical and Zadokite priesthood will take place in the millennium. The sacrifices would look back to the sacrifice of Christ in the same way that the Old Testament sacrifices looked forward. But it is very difficult to square this view with the theology of Hebrews. Moreover, there are many hints that these chapters should not be taken literally. The division of land (chaps. 47–48) is all but impossible for anyone who has seen the terrain. The impossible source and course of the river (47:1–12) strains credulity—and in any case both the temple and the river of life are given quite different interpretations in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see how the prescribed tribal purity of Levitical and Zadokite lines could be restored. Intervening records have been lost, so that no one could prove his descent from Aaron. Presumably a dispensationalist could argue that God could reveal the necessary information. But the point is that the tribes have been so mixed up across the centuries that they cannot be unscrambled. The problem is not one of information, but of mixed lines. Thus this interpretation, precisely because it deals with something at the end of time when the tribal lines are no longer differentiable, is even less credible than the previous one.

How, then, shall we interpret these chapters?[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 8 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 11; Philippians 2; Ezekiel 41; Psalms 92–93

 

in few places does the word however have more potent force than in 1 Kings 11:1: “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women.” In those days, the size of a king’s harem was widely considered a reflection of his wealth and power. Solomon married princesses from everywhere, not least, the writer painfully explains, “from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods’ ” (11:2).

That is exactly what happened, especially as Solomon grew old (11:3–4). He participated in the worship of foreign gods. To please his wives, he provided shrines, altars, and temples for their deities. Doubtless many Israelites began to participate in this pagan worship. At the very least, many would have their sense of outrage dulled, not least because Solomon was known to be such a wise, resourceful, and successful king. Eventually his pagan idolatry extended to the detestable gods to whom one sacrifices children. Thus Solomon “did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done” (11:6). Of course, David himself failed on occasion. But he lapsed from a life of principled devotion to the Lord God, and he repented and returned to the Lord; he did not live in a stream of growing religious compromise like his son and heir to the throne.

The sentence is delivered (11:9–13): after his death, Solomon’s kingdom will be divided, with ten tribes withdrawing, leaving only two for the Davidic dynasty—and even this paltry remainder is conceded only for David’s sake. Had Solomon been another sort of man, he would have repented, sought the Lord’s favor, destroyed all the high places, promoted covenant fidelity. But the sad truth is that Solomon preferred his wives and their opinions to his covenant Lord and his opinion. During the closing years of his reign, Solomon had plenty of signs that God’s protective favor was being withdrawn (11:14–40). Nothing is sadder than Solomon’s futile effort to have Jeroboam killed—evocative of Saul’s attempt to have David killed. But there is no movement, no repentance, no hunger for God.

There are plenty of lessons. Be careful what, and whom, you love. Good beginnings do not guarantee good endings. Heed the warnings of God while there is time; if you don’t, you will eventually become so hardened that even his most dire threats will leave you unmoved. At the canonical level, even the most blessed, protected, and endowed dynasty, chosen from within the Lord’s chosen people, is announcing its end: it will fall apart. Oh, how we need a Savior, a king from heaven![1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 6 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 9; Ephesians 6; Ezekiel 39; Psalm 90

 

ezekiel 38 begins the oracle against Gog; Ezekiel 39 continues it. Here Gog’s overthrow is narrated again, but in different terms. This is typical of Hebrew semi-poetry. We are not dealing with a separate account of the same thing, which has somehow been stitched onto the first account. Hebrew rhetoric loves to loop around and enlarge on previous statements, even if this conflicts with our Western sense of sequence. Two observations:

(1) There are plenty of hints that these two chapters have moved from a literal or largely prosaic description of battle to the apocalyptic description of the ultimate battle. This does not mean that the ultimate battle is not real. It means that its shape and details cannot be read off the surface of the text. The war implements are the implements of Ezekiel’s time (“shields, the bows and arrows, the war clubs and spears,” 39:9)—but this battle certainly did not take place in any literal sense in Ezekiel’s time, and if it were taking place at the end of history these would not be the instruments of war. Typical of apocalyptic literature, we now have nicely stylized periods of time: seven years (39:9), seven months (39:12, 14). The triumphant Israelites end up eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the mighty men and princes of the earth, who are sacrificed like rams and lambs, goats and bulls (39:17–19). To say that this is merely an evocative way of saying that the opponents will all be defeated is to concede my point: the language is visceral and symbol-laden, and one must proceed with care.

(2) It is God himself who sovereignly brings Gog and his might from the “far north” (39:2) to lead them to destruction. This is both like and unlike an important theme in the major prophets that we have already noticed. The prophets keep saying that the mighty powers (Assyria, Babylon) that chasten Israel and Judah do so under God’s powerful sway, even though they are held accountable for their brutality (e.g., Isa. 10:5ff.). The picture here affirms God’s sovereignty over these pagan nations, but now he is not using them to chasten the covenant community but to bring them to their own destruction. The biblical book with this theme most clearly worked out is Revelation. Believers are to take encouragement from the fact that even in this world of horrible cruelty and injustice, God will ultimately bring the perverse to final judgment. Justice will not only be done but will be seen to be done. So we do not lose heart. We cherish and nurture the apocalyptic vision, not because it is a prosaic roadmap of impending history, but because it signals the ultimate triumph of God.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 6 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 9; Ephesians 6; Ezekiel 39; Psalm 90

 

just before the closing lines of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he invites his readers to pray for him (Eph. 6:19–20): “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

(1) Elsewhere when Paul provides models for how his converts should pray (e.g., Eph. 3:14–21; Phil. 1:9–11), the theme of mission does not arise as powerfully as here. True, Paul elsewhere asks others to pray for him (1 Thess. 5:25), but here he specifies what he wants them to ask for (compare Col. 4:4; 2 Thess. 3:1). He wants to be able to speak the “mystery” of the Gospel fearlessly.

(2) Surely it is encouraging that Paul should feel the need for such prayer. We sometimes place the apostle on such a high pedestal that we forget he was an ordinary mortal faced with the same temptations that confront us. He was very well aware of how easy it is to skew the Gospel, to trim it a little, to get around the bits we think our hearers will find awkward or offensive. So he knew that to preach the Gospel faithfully, he would have to preach it fearlessly. This does not reflect an “in your face” style. It means, rather, that Paul wanted to speak without fearing what his hearers would think or say about him, or what they might do to him, lest he compromise the Gospel he came to announce.

It does not take much imagination to detect ways in which today’s preachers in the Western world stand in need of much prayer in this regard. Suppose you are preaching to university undergraduates at a pagan university, or to bright businesspeople in their 20s and 30s in, say, New York. When you expound Romans, exactly how will you handle homosexuality in chapter 1 and election in chapter 9? How will you talk about hell in the many passages where Jesus himself deploys the most horrific images? How might you be tempted to flinch when you must deal with the sheer exclusiveness of the Gospel or when you talk about money to rich people?

(3) We should not miss the fact that Paul is willing to ask for prayer. Some leaders think they must never admit a weakness, a fear, or a need. They act as if they are above the fray. Not Paul. His request for prayer is not pro forma: he asks for prayer to preach the Gospel fearlessly because he has been preaching long enough, and knows himself well enough, to know the power and danger of preaching for merely popular acclaim. By asking for prayer, he admits his fears, and secures their divine remedy.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 5 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 8; Ephesians 5; Ezekiel 38; Psalm 89

 

chapters 38–39 of ezekiel are among the most difficult chapters in the entire book. In many ways they stand apart from what comes before and after. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the following. Chapters 40–48 are so much later than most of the book (the twenty-fifth year of exile, 40:1) that they are almost like an appendix to the rest of the visions and oracles. If so, then chapters 38–39 must be seen as a conclusion to the preceding thirty-seven chapters, but not necessarily as a bridge to chapters 40–48. Precisely how this prophecy against Gog serves as a conclusion to all that comes before it in Ezekiel depends very much on how these two chapters are interpreted. Even to catalog the possibilities would turn these brief meditations into a commentary, so I must largely restrict myself to some tentative conclusions.

It cannot have escaped notice that in several previous chapters I chose not to comment on certain sections. In part this was nothing more than selectivity based on my restricted space. But in part these passages belong to the same genus, and can usefully be thought about together. For instance, 37:25–28 anticipates the time when Israel, under God’s servant David, will live in the land “forever,” and “David my servant will be their prince forever.” God’s “sanctuary is among them forever.” Such language must either be taken at face value—a temple in Jerusalem, with a Davidic king, the throne and temple enduring forever—or it points beyond itself. For reasons that will become clearer, I am inclined to think that these and similar prophecies look forward to the glorious messianic future, but are largely cast in terms of the familiar categories of the old covenant. These same categories, the New Testament writers insist, have a predictive function fulfilled in Jesus the son of David and all that he brings.

Along similar lines, Ezekiel 38 begins by denouncing “Gog, chief prince of Meschech and Tubal” (38:3). The suggestion that these names refer to Moscow and Tobolsk is without linguistic merit. The pair of names appears elsewhere (Gen. 10:2; 1 Chron. 1:5; Ezek. 27:13; 32:26) and refers to the known tribes of Moschoi and Tibarenoi. Gog is perhaps to be identified with Gyges, king of Lydia (called Gûgu in some ancient records). More importantly, this anticipated horde of opponents to God’s people comes from the “far north” (38:6)—which is the direction from which the worst of Israel’s foes always came. The chapter ends in apocalyptic imagery (38:18–23)—which begins to make the scene feel like an idealized and final outbreak against the people of God, in which God vindicates his name and his cause. Thus all previous outbreaks anticipate, and are concluded by, this final apocalyptic struggle.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 5 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

1 Kings 8; Ephesians 5; Ezekiel 38; Psalm 89

 

the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem and Solomon’s prayer on that occasion (1 Kings 8) overflow with links that reach both backward and forward along the line of redemptive history.

(1) The structure of the temple is a proportionate reproduction of the tabernacle. Thus the rites prescribed by the Mosaic Covenant, and the symbol-laden value all that God prescribed through Moses, continue: the altar, the table for the bread of consecration, the Most Holy Place, the two cherubim over the ark of the covenant, and so forth.

(2) Most spectacularly, after the ark of the covenant has been transported to its new resting place and the priests withdraw, the glory of the Lord, manifested in the same sort of cloud that signaled the Lord’s presence in the tabernacle, fills the temple. Not only does God approve the temple, but a new step has been taken in God’s unfolding purposes. While the symbolism of the tabernacle is retained in the temple, no longer is this edifice something mobile. The wandering years, and even the uncertain years of the judges, are over. Now God’s presence, manifested in this solid building, is tied to one location: Jerusalem. A new set of symbol-laden historical experiences adds rich new dimensions to the accumulating wealth pointing to the coming of Jesus. Here is a stable kingdom—and the kingdom of God; Jerusalem, and the new Jerusalem; the glorious temple, and the city that needs no temple because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). Here are tens of thousands of animals slaughtered—and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

(3) At his best, Solomon is thoroughly aware that no structure, not even this one, can contain or domesticate God. “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (8:27).

(4) But that does not stop him from asking God to manifest himself here. Above all, Solomon knows that what the people will need most is forgiveness. So in wide-ranging and prescient descriptions of experiences the people will pass through, Solomon repeats some variation of the refrain: “Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (8:30ff). That is exactly right: hear from heaven, even if the eyes of the people are toward this temple, and forgive.

(5) Solomon’s forward glance includes the dreadful possibility of exile (8:46–51), followed by rescue and release. Further, while Solomon urges fidelity on the people (8:56–61), he also echoes a prominent point in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3): Israel must be faithful “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other” (8:60).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

October 4 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

1 Kings 7; Ephesians 4; Ezekiel 37; Psalms 87–88

 

since the announcement of the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel has been promising new leadership, a restoration to the land, and moral and spiritual transformation. But just as his earlier announcement of the fall of Jerusalem was met with considerable skepticism, so now his announcement of blessings to come meets with the same. Their nation is shattered, their cities destroyed, and many of their people are scattered abroad, living as exiles in foreign lands. It is hard to detect even a glimmer of hope. They cry, in effect, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off” (37:11). In Ezekiel 37, God provides a vision and an object lesson to engender and nurture that hope.

The first is the vision of the valley of dry bones (37:1–14). Ezekiel is shown these “very dry” bones and is asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (37:3). The bones represent the Israelites in exile. The northern tribes have been in exile for a century and a half. The exilic community in Babylon where Ezekiel is living has been there a decade. The bones are very dry indeed. First Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones. Miraculously, the bones come together and are covered with flesh and skin—but we have moved only from skeletons to corpses. Then Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the “breath” (rûah, which equally means “Spirit” and “wind”). Now the corpses come to life and stand on their feet—“a vast army” (37:10). In other words, although preaching of itself effects some changes, what is required is the sweeping power of the Spirit of God. Within the metaphorical world, this is nothing less than resurrection from the dead (37:12). The meaning of the vision, however, is that God will pour out his Spirit, and the exile will end (37:14).

The second part of the chapter is devoted to the object lesson of the two sticks (37:15–28). The first stick represents Judah; the second represents the northern tribes of Israel. Ezekiel stands for God. As he puts the two sticks together, so God declares that in the promised restoration there will no longer be two kingdoms, but one. “There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms” (37:22). Once again, the promise of inner transformation surfaces: “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (37:23). Most important of all, the promised Messiah will lead them: “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd” (37:24).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.